head. 'We must abandon the hive and spread the forces here to other bastions of strength. This is not the Second War. What is coming in-system now far exceeds what has laid waste to the planet before. The other hives must be reinforced a thousand times over.' He took a moment to clear his throat, and a cough stole over him, dry and hoarse. When it subsided, the Old Man smiled without even the ghost of humour.

'Hades will burn. We must make our stand elsewhere.'

At this cue, General Kurov stepped forward with a data-slate.

'We come to the divisions of command.' He took a breath, and pressed on. 'The fleet that will besiege Armageddon is too vast to repel.'

A chorus of jeers rose. Kurov rode them out. Grimaldus, Helbrecht and Bayard were among those that remained absolutely silent.

'Hear me, friends and brothers,' Kurov sighed. 'And hear me well. Those of you who insist this war will be anything more than a conflict of bitter attrition are deceiving yourselves. At current estimates, we have over fifty thousand Astartes in the Armageddon subsector, and thirty times the number of Imperial Guardsmen. And it will still not be enough to secure a clean victory. At our best estimations, Battlefleet Armageddon, the orbital defences, and the Astartes fleets remaining in the void will be able to deny the enemy landing for nine days. These are our

'And the worst?' asked an Astartes officer bedecked in white wolf furs, wearing the grey war plate of the Space Wolves. His body language betrayed his impatience. He almost paced, like a canine in a cage.

'Four days,' the Old Man said through his grim smile.

Silence descended again. Kurov didn't waste it.

'Admiral Parol of Battlefleet Armageddon has outlined his plan and uploaded it to the tactical network for all commanders to review. Once the orbital war is lost, be it four days or nine, our fleets will break from the planet in a fighting withdrawal. From then on, Armageddon will be defenceless beyond what is already entrenched upon the surface. The orks will be free to land whatever and wherever they wish. Admiral Parol will lead the remaining Naval ships of the fleet in repeated guerrilla strikes against the invaders' vessels still in orbit.'

'Who will lead the Astartes vessels?' Captain Amaras spoke up again.

There was another pause, before Commissar Yarrick nodded to a dark- armoured cluster of warriors across the table.

'Given his seniority and the expertise of his Chapter, High Marshal Helbrecht of the Black Templars will take overall command of the Astartes fleets.'

And once more, there was uproar, several Astartes commanders demanding that the glory be theirs. The knights ignored it.

'We are to remain in orbit?' Grimaldus leaned closer to his commander and voiced the question.

The High Marshal didn't take his eyes from Yarrick. 'We are the obvious choice to command the Astartes elements in the orbital battles.'

The Chaplain looked across the chamber, at the various leaders and officers of a hundred different forces.

I was wrong, he thought. I will not die in futility on this world. Eagerness, hot and urgent, flushed through his system, as real and vital as a flood of adrenaline gushing through his two hearts.

will plunge like a lance into the core of their fleet. High Marshal, we can slaughter the greenskin tyrant before he even sets foot on the world below us.'

Helbrecht lifted his gaze from the ancient commissar as his Chaplain spoke. He turned to Grimaldus, his dark eyes piercing the other knight's skull mask with their intensity.

'I have already spoken with the other marshals, my brother. We must leave a contingent on the surface. I will lead the orbital crusade. Amalrich and Ricard will lead the forces in the Ash Wastes. All that remains is a single crusade, to defend one of the hive cities that yet remains ungarrisoned by Astartes.'

Grimaldus shook his head. 'That is not our duty, my liege. Both Amalrich and Ricard have a host of honours inscribed upon their armour. Each has led greater crusades alone. Neither will relish an exile to a filthy manufactorum hive while a thousand of their brothers wage a glorious war in the heavens. You would shame them.'

'And yet,' Helbrecht was implacable, his features set in stone, 'a commander must remain.'

'Don't.' The knight's blood ran cold. 'Don't do this.'

'It is already done.'

'No,' he said, and meant it with every fibre of his being. 'No.'

'This is not the time. The decision is made, Grimaldus. I know you, as I knew Mordred. You will not refuse this honour.'

Grimaldus said again, loud enough that other commanders began to stare.

Helbrecht said nothing. Grimaldus stepped closer to him.

'I would burst the Great Enemy's black heart in my hand, and cast his blasphemous flagship to the surface of Armageddon wreathed in holy fire. Do not leave me here, Helbrecht. Do not deny me this glory.'

'You will not refuse this honour,' the High Marshal said, his voice as stony as his face.

Grimaldus wanted no further part in the proceedings. Worse, he knew he was irrelevant here. As deliberations and tactics were discussed for the coming orbital defence, he turned from the hololithic display.

'Wait, brother.' Helbrecht's voice made it a request, not an order, and that made it easy to refuse.

Grimaldus stalked from the chamber without another word.

Their destination was
called, with bleakness so typical of this world, Helsreach.

'Blood of Dorn,' Artarion swore with feeling. 'Now that's a sight.'

'This is… huge,' Nerovar whispered.

The four Thunderhawks tore across the sulphurous sky, parting sick yellow clouds that drifted apart in their wake. From the cockpit of the lead aircraft, six knights watched the expansive city below.

barely covered it.

The four gunships, boosters howling, veered in graceful unison around one of the tallest industrial spires. It was slate-grey, belching thick smoke into the dirty sky, merely one of hundreds.

A wing of escorts, small and manoeuvrable Lightning-pattern air superiority fighters, coasted alongside the Astartes Thunderhawks. They were neither welcome nor unwelcome, merely ignored.

'We cannot be the only Astartes strength sent to this city.' Nerovar removed his white helmet with a hiss of venting air pressure and stared with naked eyes at the metropolis flashing beneath. 'How can we hold this alone?'

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